Virtue Ethics

Character and integrity-based approaches to business ethics have mainly drawn on one of the earliest ethical theories, that of virtue ethics. This is decidedly not a contemporary theory (which the other alternative theories tend to be), being over 2000 years old and having its origins in ancient Greece and Aristotle’s writings on ethics, especially his Nicomachean Ethics. In virtue ethics, the main message is that ‘good actions come from good persons’, where good persons are defined in terms of certain traits or characteristics, namely ‘virtues’.

Virtue ethics An approach to ethics which focuses on the idea that possessing excellent traits of character, or virtues, is required in order to be a good person. A virtuous person is a morally good and wise person.

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Virtues are ingrained in the individual, not just arrived at by a whim, but reflective of the person’s entire disposition or way of being. Which traits are virtuous, their opposite vices and otherwise has been the subject of debate for millennia—and continues to this day. Virtues can be differentiated into intellectual virtues—practical ‘wisdom’ (phronesis) being the most prominent one—and moral virtues, which comprise a long list of possible characteristics such as temperance, courage, justice, honesty, friendship, mercy, loyalty, patience, etc. All these virtues are manifested in actions that are a habitual pattern of behaviour of the virtuous person, rather than just occurring once or in one-off decisions. The idea of balance is important here, so you can have too much or too little of these characteristics. We might think of them as on a continuum—blind loyalty and disloyalty, for example, are the extremes of the virtue of loyalty, rashness and cowardice are the extremes of courage. As these traits are not ours by birth, we acquire them by learning and, most notably in business, by being in relationships with others in a community